According to the Pew Research Center, the world has spoken and their verdict is clear: they don’t like President Donald Trump very much. Trump’s personality and policies get bad reviews in South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. According to the Pew poll, the residents of only two countries on the planet—Russia and Israel—view him more favorably than President Obama.
But Trump is still the leader of the free world.
That title traditionally goes along with the other perks of being president of the United States, but even Trump’s admirers would have to admit he does not wear the mantle lightly or naturally. Nor, given his disdain for some traditional U.S. allies and alliances, does it seem like something he even wants. Yet despite his lack of comfort with the role, and the revulsion many nations seem to feel for him, there’s no replacing the U.S. as the bulwark of the West, or the President as its leader.
That’s not what they’re saying in Europe or in the American foreign policy establishment after the U.S. withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement earlier this month. After Trump had the chutzpah to diss NATO’s heads of government to their faces at the latest G7 Summit for not paying their fair share for common defense, and refusing to explicitly restate America’s Article 5 obligation to rescue its allies, the consensus was that the U.S. could no longer be called the leader of the free world.
If Not Trump, Then Who?
In Trump’s place, the Europeans have two candidates: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and new French President Emmanuel Macron. But while each of them are impressive leaders, the idea that they are a plausible replacement for even the most unpopular American president since the Second World War is ludicrous.
Merkel is acclaimed as the leader who can stand up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, while Germany assumes an ever more important role in the continent’s political and economic life. She indicated agreement with that view when she recently said Europe must “take fate into our own hands” rather than sit back and wait for Trump to assume a leadership role. Macron is also making his own bid with a pugnacious approach to Putin and some much publicized disrespect for Trump at the G7 that netted him cheers from the same quarters.
There’s no question that Germany is Europe’s dominant economic power in Europe, And France still has more influence than its current standing in the world would otherwise dictate. But while Merkel and Macron may be dismayed at Trump’s “America First” foreign policy and ham-handed diplomacy, they shouldn’t confuse their publicity releases with reality. Despite Trump’s low approval ratings at home and abroad, neither should think they could step into the role America has played for the last 70 years.
America’s Unique International Burden
No other nation has the economic or the military power of America. Without U.S. muscle, NATO would be an abstraction. With anyone but the American president as its leader, the alliance would be as toothless as the League of Nations and with just as much chance of stopping aggression or standing up for the West as Woodrow Wilson’s creation had to stop the Nazis in the 1930s. With—their recent election results notwithstanding—Britain still heading for the exits and other nations rethinking the idea of bureaucrats in Brussels run roughshod over their traditions, the E.U. is never going to become the United States of Europe. That’s why Merkel’s talk of Europe going its own way and essentially ignoring the U.S. is laughable.
Let’s also not forget that both Germany and France carry baggage that makes it impossible for them to lead the free world. We may be generations removed from the Holocaust, but Berlin’s clashes with defaulter nations like Greece illustrated that economic dominance shouldn’t be confused with the political capital to be a universally respected player on the continent. Macron seems to offer a breath of fresh air, but his ambition is compromised by the yawning gap between France’s lack of economic and military punch and Paris’ pretension to still be the capital of the world.
If either of them feels strong enough to confront Putin, it is only because they have the weight of America behind them. Without it, they are just the heads of two middling powers. Moreover, both France and Germany face serious internal problems dealing with the consequences of uncontrolled mass immigration from the Middle East and the threat of terror, both from ISIS and homegrown killers. Before they can think about taking on the leadership of the West, Europeans must confront their inability to assimilate massive numbers of immigrants as well as deal with the threat of Islamist terror.
Trump’s Unorthodox Orthodoxy
Trump is handicapped by a “resistance” determined to topple him and whose efforts he’s aided with misjudgments and ill-considered tweets. But for all of his flaws Trump has, albeit grudgingly, reaffirmed America’s commitment to NATO and actually done more with his action in Syria to exert American power and to stand up against atrocities than Barack Obama ever did with his “lead from behind” approach.
Although he has needed more coaxing and appears to defer his national security team far more than most presidents, Trump’s actual policies are nowhere near as unorthodox as his manner of talking about them. Nor, despite his stubborn hopes for some sort of rapprochement with Russia that resemble nothing so much as Obama’s illusions about Iran, have his hopes for a better relationship with Moscow prevented his administration from standing up to Russia when necessary.
Trump will never be the president the world or the foreign policy establishment wants. Nor will his conduct ever hold a candle to the memories of John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan, whose soaring rhetoric epitomized U.S. leadership and galvanized the West to stand up to Soviet tyranny.
But America is still the irreplaceable player on the international stage. As the polls indicate, the free world may not love him, but so long as he’s sitting in the Oval Office, Donald Trump will remain its leader.